KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Look who's leading the AL Central. It's none other than the Kansas City Royals, the youngest and poorest team in the majors.
After a wacky week that included four wins in their final at-bat, the surprising Royals are 4-2 and feeling cocky. They've stolen more bases than any other team in the majors and they've already eclipsed their longest winning streak (three games) since September 2009.
A one-time phenom that many people were about to give up on — Alex Gordon — is batting .379 with six extra-base hits. A couple of rookies in the bullpen have been nearly unhittable. A young shortstop who came over from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade made a spectacular defensive play that probably saved one of their come-from-behind wins.
And please do not say it's early. To long-suffering fans who've endured losing records 16 of the past 17 seasons, it's late.
At the very least, it's about time.
"We've been coming out to about 15 or 20 games a year for I don't know how long," said Sal Luper, sitting in the right field bleachers at a recent game, a big "KC" on his cap. "Finally, it looks like they're going to start creating some real excitement. Finally. I don't know how long it'll last, but I like the way this team plays."
So does Ned Yost, their tough-minded manager.
"They were playing great baseball all through the spring and they've brought it up here with them," Yost said.
A former Milwaukee manager, Yost believes in being aggressive. It's an attitude that seems to align perfectly with the spirit and mettle of a team whose opening day average age of 27.2 makes them the youngest in the majors. The Royals took Thursday off before heading for Detroit with a major league-leading 14 stolen bases. Nobody else was even close. Their record was a half-game ahead of the White Sox in the AL Central entering Thursday's play.
Their confidence, in spite of a 12-inning, 10-7 loss to Chicago on Wednesday, was soaring.
"I've never had more fun playing baseball than I've had this week," said Billy Butler, the designated hitter who's also off to a good start with a .364 average and two home runs. "This team just feels like it will find a way to win. We never give up."
The Royals are not just young. Their payroll of a little more than $36 million also makes them the lowest-paid. But that seems only to add to a never-say-die attitude that's already produced two walkoff home runs.
If they had managed to bring in runners in the 10th or 11th inning on Wednesday, the Royals would have set an American League record with five straight wins in their last at-bat to start a season.
"The guys here know they can play at this level," said catcher Matt Treanor, who came over from Texas in the final days of spring training and brings valuable World Series experience to a fuzzy-cheeked clubhouse. "Young guys know they can pitch and compete and the guys who have been around a little bit help them feel comfortable at this level."
It was Treanor and first baseman Kila Ka'aihue who treated hope-starved fans to those walkoff homers in the season-opening series against the Angels.
"We're not going to be intimidated by anybody," Treanor said. "If we go out and play our game every day, we're going to have a lot of wins."
In one come-from-behind win, rookie reliever Tim Collins threw three shutout innings. Rookie Aaron Crow, a native of the nearby Topeka, Kan., area and former University of Missouri star, has thrown five innings in three games and has yet to give up a run.
In one of the Angels games, shortstop Alcides Escobar went deep in the hole, wheeled around and threw out speedy Alex Rios, the sort of sensational play fans saw 25 years ago when Frank White was their All-Star second baseman.
"That was a great play," said White, now a Royals broadcaster. "It was a game-saving play, a clutch play. You don't often see a shortstop 3 or 4 feet onto the grass be able to get his body angle back toward first base and get off a throw like that."
So far, a suspect starting rotation has remained just that except for Jeff Francis, who's made two starts and gone 13 innings with an ERA of 1.98.
But there are several top pitching prospects at Triple-A Omaha, part of a minor league system many consider the best in baseball. That, and the assertive, risk-taking, go-get-em mindset Yost has installed could make for an interesting summer in a town that feels it has been patient long enough.
"Players like to be aggressive. Players like to play the game to win," said Yost. "It makes the game fun for them. And it makes the game, quite frankly, fun for the fans and everybody involved. I always stop myself and tell myself, 'Don't be afraid to win the ballgame. Go ahead and go for it.'"